Well, I’m coming up on the one-year anniversary of arriving in Vanuatu (on October 9th—my one-year anniversary of being on Tanna, working as a teacher, isn’t ‘til December 12th). Just as they predicted and warned us during training, I’m starting to hit kind of a motivational/emotional slump. It’s a little eerie how accurately they seem to have mapped out the highs and lows of Peace Corps service, but I suppose it’s also reassuring that all of this is as expected and mundane as adolescent angst.
It’s a reasonable time to start feeling down. Nearing the one year mark makes me reflect on my service so far—after all, it’s getting close to being halfway over—and I hope I’m not the only volunteer who, in reflecting on her work to this point, starts to wonder what the hell she’s actually accomplished.
I mean, I’ve done stuff. The students are much better at using the library, and five students from Class 6 are now working, semi-independently, as librarians. I’ve made a number of teaching games for Classes 1 and 2 that they play with all the time. I’ve raised the basic phonics skills of most students in Class 2, and several of them are now able to read simple books mostly on their own. The small reading groups I work with have mostly moved up a level or two.
But the stuff I haven’t done seems even bigger. The library still isn’t totally waterproofed. The teachers still don’t bring their classes to exchange books during class time, or show any interest in learning how to find books they want for their classes on their own. I haven’t done nearly enough work with Class 1, and many of them still don’t know the alphabet. Only about five out of the sixteen students in Class 2 are actually able to read mostly on their own, and none of them knows long vowel sounds yet. I haven’t created any kind of school-wide discipline/incentive program that the teachers actually make use of. I haven’t done any kind of training with the teachers to improve their teaching. The workshops I’ve done with the teachers have been utterly ineffective—the teachers still don’t make lesson plans, still don’t give any kind of assessment other than the end of term test, and still create their tests at the last second, on material they haven’t thoroughly taught to the students, in formats that the students are unfamiliar with (at the end of term two, every single student in Class 5 except for one failed their English and Maths tests, and that’s not entirely the fault of the students). I work with Classes 3 and 4 once a week, but can pretty well tell that I have not taught them anything, and their teacher no longer bothers to stay in the room when I’m teaching. I haven’t even tried to work with Classes 5 and 6, because their teacher is gone from the room (and sometimes school) so often that I would basically become a substitute teacher.
In short, I’m looking back at my year in Vanuatu so far, and thinking, “So, what was the point of that?” I feel like I’m not doing nearly a good enough job. I feel like I don’t really know how to do a better job, and sometimes, even that I don’t care enough to do a better job. And I’m frustrated with the aspects of the culture here that make it so very hard create positive change in a school.
When I’m feeling upbeat, and doing fun things outside of the school, and enjoying the culture and environment here, this stuff doesn’t get to me. After all, the Peace Corps isn’t entirely about our primary assignments—teaching in schools, or working at aid posts, or assisting with local businesses, whatever it may be. The Peace Corps is also largely about cultural exchange. So when I’m feeling positive about that, about sharing American culture with people here and Ni-Vanuatu culture with people back in the States, then problems at school don’t get me down.
But when I start to feel bored, and lonely, and homesick, and don’t have anything to do outside of the school…well, that’s when my failure to create substantial or sustainable change really gets to me. Because if I’m not changing anything here, then why am I here? Why am I sitting on this tiny island that almost no one even knows exists, feeling frustrated and lonely, instead of back at home where I have family and friends, and a culture and community that I feel I really belong to?
I don’t know. A year ago I was so sure of myself, and now I don’t know exactly what I’m doing here. Of course, I’m not going home—I’m not even considering it. Because the work I’m doing here, no matter how small and fleeting, is still good work. Because I have another whole year to try and do better. Because I still have moments and experiences that are amazing, and that I couldn’t have anywhere else. Because I made a commitment. Because this feeling of disappointment will pass. And because this experience here will pass, too, and I know that once it’s over, and I’m back in the USA, I will miss it so much, and it is something I will never have again.
And if I’m honest with myself, even in America I had times when I felt lonely, and frustrated, and disappointed. I sometimes felt bored and useless and sad. Sure, it happens more here in Vanuatu, and it’s harder to cope with here, as well. And in America I did have times where I felt useful, and excited, and like I was a part of something larger than myself. But that also happens more here in Vanuatu, and those times feel even more amazing, and I know that I am lucky to get to have them.